10,000 John Deere workers begin largest US private sector strike in years

While the company has earned record profits, workers say their pay and benefits are being undercut

October 14, 2021 by Monica Cruz
Workers on the picket line in Waterloo, Iowa. Photo: News 7 KWWL

Over 10,000 John Deere production and warehouse workers are on strike across 14 facilities, making up the largest US private sector strike since 2019. Workers with the agriculture equipment maker in Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa and Kansas walked off the job at midnight, just days after they voted by 90% to reject a tentative contract agreement.

Workers say they have been forced to do overtime consistently, some working 12-hour days, 6 days a week. The strikers cited inadequate wage increases as a major reason for rejecting the contract offer. Meanwhile, John Deere has reported record profits in 2021. With a $4.7 billion profit in the first three-quarters of this year, the company beat its past record by 63%. CEO John C. May saw his pay increase by 160% during the pandemic.

Workers at the Ottumwa, Ohio plant convince a freight driver not to cross the picket line.

Another contentious piece of the contract is pension benefits. Under the current contract proposal, new hires would be denied pension plans. The 1997 contract established a two-tier system for workers: full pension and health care benefits for retirees who started at the company before that contract and only around a third of those benefits for workers after. This is in addition to the menial pay and benefits they receive while they’re still working.

Workers have also taken issue with the company’s piece rate pay system, which awards bonuses to groups of workers who hit their rates. COVID-related supply chain issues have resulted in parts shortages and made it impossible for production workers to make their rates, and some say they have been penalized for not doing so.

UAW President Ray Curry said, “UAW John Deere members have worked through the pandemic after the company deemed them essential, to produce the equipment that feeds America, builds America and powers the American economy. These essential UAW workers are showing us all that through the power of a strong united union voice on the picket line they can make a difference for working families here and throughout the country.”

“Our members at John Deere strike for the ability to earn a decent living, retire with dignity and establish fair work rules,” said Chuck Browning, Vice President and director of the UAW’s Agricultural Implement Department. “We stay committed to bargaining until our members’ goals are achieved.”

The last time John Deere workers went on strike was in 1986, which went on for 163 days and included a lockout by the company.

This strike is the latest in a wave of labor actions across the country. 1,400 workers with the famous cereal manufacturer Kellogg’s have been on strike since early October and 60,000 Hollywood film crew members could go on strike on Monday.

Monica Cruz is a reporter with US-based media outlet Breakthrough News.